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Knowing the Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Easter 6

Delivered by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones
Now, I’ve never been to Greece,
but thanks to the wonders of visual technology,
awesome photographs are but a click away on my computer,
and most of us have seen images in books or on TVof that most iconic of Greek sites,
the Parthenon, or Temple to Athena, sitting atop the Acropolis,
overlooking the ancient city of Athens.

While the city beneath it is now a bustling modern one,
this ancient sacred site has always attracted tourists to its temples.
We catch up with one such tourist in the reading from the book of Acts.

Paul, in his many missionary travels around the Mediterranean,
had gotten into a spot of bother in Thessalonika and then Berea,
(his rather vigorous, take no prisoners style of preaching about Jesus had proved singularly unpopular with Jew and Greek alike),
and he had to high tail out of Dodge under cover of darkness, and landed in Athens,
where suddenly, he has time on his hands while he is waiting for backup
from Silas and Timothy, who are a few days’ voyage away.

Now what would you do if you were suddenly stranded in Greece for a few days?
You do what all good tourists do, and you strap on the sunhat and visit the sites,
and lacking the technology for photography, you take mental snapshots of the amazing sites.As did Paul.

Athena Nike, Poseidon, Cecrops, Pandrosos, Artemis, Dionysus,
and even the Roman Augustus, all had temples, statues, altars
erected to them in this capital city of Greco-Roman pantheism.

To a Jew-turned–Christian like Paul,
such a plethora of deities was more than a bit too much….!
Peterson’s paraphrase rather colourfully describes Paul’s horrified reaction to what he calls a ‘junkyard of idols.’
So scandalized that he goes around muttering off
to anyone who will listen, and plenty who don’t want to.

He gets noticed.
Noticed by the first century Athenian media.
Perfect for a slow news week in Athens,
they invite him to interview live at the Areopagus,
expecting fireworks as this naïve loud-mouth preacher from backwater Palestine takes on the Pantheon of Greece in a made- for- networks Battle of the Gods on primetime.

Except, it doesn’t happen that way.
Instead of the hell fire and brimstone,
argumentative, dogmatic Paul that people ancient and modern
have such a hard time with,
The Paul who shows up at the Areopagus brings his tourist photos with him.

“I’ve been looking at all your lovely statues” he says….
“I can tell from all the work that has gone into this amazing
display of godlike marble and alabaster,
that you are a deeply religious people…”

Who is this? Not the Paul I’m used to!
This Paul has read “the Art of Public speaking” while waiting for Silas and Timothy!
First three rules are:
#1. Know your audience
#2. Swot up on the local customs and be prepared to allude to it in your speech
#3. Praise your audience for something they value highly.

Paul nailed it! He knew that the one thing this city prided itself on
was its religious sophistication,
cast in bronze and gold and stone in its hundreds of temples.
By praising them for such beauty, he has them eating out of his hand!

Then……
he pulls out one more photo.
Not a shot of the30 foot (9m) high Athena Promachos, as you might expect,
but of a smaller insignificant statue from some side street.
The inscription beneath the figure was Paul’s key to the soul of Athens,
and frankly, it’s his key to the soul of the rest of us too.

The inscription on this god statue says:“To the unknown God,”
or, put the Peterson way, “The God nobody knows.”

“The God nobody knows.”What’s he saying?
We think we know God – those of us who come here often….Kind of…. sort of…..
But we also know we don’t know God that well either,
which is why some of us do come here often,
and why many more people don’t come at all…

But back to Paul, now showing his photo to the gathered TV audience;
he says, “ Me, I know this Unknown God.This God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.”Our God. The God. God.

But then did you see what he does?
Instead of haranguing the Athenians for theirgaggle of useless gods,
and instead of piling up proof upon proof of this One God’s existence,
Paul goes all poetic on us.

“This God is the one in whom we live
and move and have our being.”

To know this unknown God, we could be like the Athenians and venture out on every intellectual, religious, spiritual, theological quest under the sun,and still ultimately come up with mystery beyond our knowing.
Or we can, like Paul did on his unplannedtrip to Athens, become tourists of our own spiritual landscape to find signs of this unknown God making Godself known to us
in ways we can understand.

—-
If Paul can find God in the acropolis of ancient Athens,what can we find here in this place, now? This sacred space, built nearly sixty years ago, on sacred foundations of Christian architectural heritage that go back two thousand years;
What might this building tell usabout this God who is holy mystery,
this God in whom we live and move and have our being?

At this point, the preacher ‘toured’ the sanctuary of Cedar Park, and these sermon notes reflect what was said at each tourist stop.

Font.
A gift for this text today is the use we made earlier of the Font.
A sign of life.
Water that holds us in the womb ‘til birth, water that nourishes the earth.
In baptism the pouring of water is a sign that life in God is capable of beginning again.
A sign of promise, when used in a Christian community
a sign of belonging to those who follow Jesus’ way of living and loving….

Nave
from the Latin word for ship,
a reminder in the structure of the ark
in which creation is held safe in times of danger.
Sanctuary to millions throughout the centuries,
and symbol of journey a pilgrim journey
with the people of God.

Bible. (and pulpit/lectern)
People who have a Book that holds within it thousands of years of testimony of people from all over the ancient Near East who came to know the God nobody knows.
Each story present a new angle, a new insight,
a new question, a new quest,
to know the God who will be known in our daily living
of life in all its fullness.

Table.
Daily living often centres around a mealtime table.
In our tradition we don’t have a sacrificial altar,
but a table of hospitality for the sharing of a meal.
What does that tell us about God
-the host at a banquet, the feeder of thousands.
A table of remembrance of one special meal,
with Jesus and his disciples. Of bread broken and wine poured and shared.
So that we sharing the meal
can change the world,
one piece of bread, one word of hope,
one cup of blessing at a time…

Cross (window) one of the most stunning elements of this building.. the Cross a symbol of transformation only God can effect.
A symbol of torture, execution,
but becomes a sign of life that conquers the worst
that death can deal.
This Cross is empty…
a tacit declaration of Easter.
The resurrection of Jesus from death to glory.

It was at this point that Paul got under the skin of some of the Athenians who ‘scoffed’ at the preposterousness of his claims about resurrection.
If nothing else the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
is the most powerful way that
God makes known to us
that this corporate, incarnate, bodily
existence we all have
is holy.
Decay doesn’t have the last word with this God.
Life does.

The empty cross,
through which the light of God’s creation shines,
making the motes of dust dance on a sunbeam,
is a sure sign that the life of Christ,
is not bound to a cross,
but is born again
and again
in human flesh.
In promise and hope.

Perhaps the most telling sign in this building today
about this Life-loving God is
this newest child of God… ( the infant who was baptized earlier in the service, Evan Simmons.)
a living testament to the God who knows us,
loves us
and in whom we all live and move and have our being.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.

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